Yesterday was ‘VJ-Day plus 70 (years)’.
I spent it in the company of my father, nearing ninety, who had indicated his intention to watch BBC’s live television coverage of the commemorative service at St Martins-in-the-Field attended by the Queen and Prince Philip and then the equivalent taking place on Horseguards Parade, at which Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were presiding.
The Burma Star (and other) veteran survivors, of course, considered themselves the ‘Forgotten Army’ – simply because they had to go on fighting for three months after VE-Day (Victory in Europe) and, by the time many of them had returned to the UK after waiting up to three more months to get repatriated, they arrived back (exhausted, malnourished, often debilitated by disease and mentally-disturbed) to discover that the public at home had long moved on and, worse, almost didn’t want to be reminded about the War anyway.
My parent is a sucker for all things WW2 because they remind him of his youth and, as it happens, in particular for VJ-Day which doubled as the day he was awarded his Fleet Air Arm pilot’s wings in Texas after a nine-month training course.
Sitting with him yesterday, sipping coffees, as both services unfolded was a moving experience. Step forward former Blue Peter presenter of cocaine-snorting fame, Richard Bacon who, now approaching forty, had been deputed to conduct occasional interviews with veterans outside the church.
He did so with exceptional sensitivity and reverence, prompting without ever dominating – letting these doughty old soldiers tell their stories in their own ways which were never less than sobering and thought-provoking.
They took me back to my own first-hand experiences of talking to Brits who had spent time as POWS suffering under Japanese control, in particular firstly, one of my old schoolmasters who had been castrated apparently in order to undermine his authority with his own men and secondly, my father-in-law who survived three years of hell in Changi, east of Singapore, by becoming an East Anglian version of King Rat, the black market entrepreneur of book and movie fame.
The latter attributed his survival exclusively to his determination not to die. Others in his unit expired, whether soon after capture or at some later point – exhausted by disease and/or ill-treatment – because in the end they just gave up. He absolutely refused to do this and instead simply did whatever it took to keep going.
Back home – decades later when I came to know him – he tended to skate over the subject on the rare occasions it was mentioned and certainly carried a visceral hatred of the Japanese race to his grave. Despite this, towards the end of his life he twice undertook visits to some of his wartime haunts (and hauntings, presumably).
Looking at it from my perspective, it must have been an horrendous experience and I suspect I’d have been one of the first to ‘let go’, lie down and die.
But maybe not. None of us can know in advance how we’d react to being placed in such a position. The ‘will to survive’ is indelibly strong and who knows what any of us might do.
At 6.00pm last night, approximately the UK equivalent of noon in Texas – the moment during the day that my father learned he had been awarded his ‘wings’ exactly seventy years previously – we cracked open a bottle of Veuve Cliquot and toasted the moment. Perhaps appropriately I had switched on the CD of In The Mood, the Glen Miller hit of the early 1940s, at volume 8 in the next door drawing-room.
My father became duly sentimental about the old days, his eyes occasionally moistening and voice wavering as he repeated his well-worn tales of his wartime and subsequent experiences in the Royal Naval Reserve. It’s tough trying to bring back memories of seventy years ago but somebody’s got to do it.